‘How could one classically? One could naught critically. Ininest lightingshaft only for lovalit smugpipe, his Mistress Mereshame, of cupric tresses, the formwhite foaminine, the ambersandalled, after Aasdocktor Talop’s onamuttony legture’.
— James Joyce, ‘Finnegans Wake’
This passage is from ‘The Mime of Mick, Nick and the Maggies’ section of ‘Finnegans Wake’; the mime, which focusses upon sibling rivalry, is a play presented by brothers Shem (Glugg) and Shaun (Chuff) and their sister Issy, and features the Maggies, that is to say, the Floras, or Rainbow girls, twenty eight dancing girls; the mime borrows its format from Joyce’s re-imagining of a dramatised version of a Dublin children’s game, Angels and Devils, or Colours. As the title of the episode suggests, the play depicts the universal, eternal and elemental conflict between Light (Shaun, the practical one, or Chuff as he is here, we can envisage him as the smoker of the ‘smugpipe’, he comes out of it much the better here, in the mime he is Mick, that is, St. Michael), and Dark (Shem, the artistic one, here as Glugg, in the mime as Nick, that is, Old Nick, that is, the Devil) as well as depicting the conflict between siblings. And of course it is the attention of the Rainbow girls that is here the source of the conflict between them. The Devil player, Glugg, is required to guess the colour of the Angels, that is the game, though here it is conflated with guessing the colours of the Floras’ underwear. Glugg, the artist figure, guesses three times, and gets it wrong three times; and the Rainbow girls, unimpressed, turn their attention to Chuff, becoming his adorable ones, while Glugg runs away in visible disgrace.
Riddles are a recurring motif throughout ‘Finnegans Wake’; and in ‘Talop’s onamuttony legture’, Talop is, of course, an anagram of Plato, his anatomy lecture might well put us in mind of Plato’s ‘Parmenides’, itself full of riddles, as it dissects in order to analyse the nature of reality; and in that particular play of ideas the youthful Socrates might be said to play the part of Glugg, (glug, the sound one makes while drowning, also the sound that is made while pouring drink from a bottle, I am not sure if we are supposed to think of glögg, Scandinavian mulled wine; the name would certainly fit, Socrates had a predilection for Bacchus); though of course Socrates does not run off in disgrace after being outdone. And another very youthful philosopher, Aristoteles, to some degree might be said to play a similar role to Chuff; he is certainly entitled to feel chuffed as Parmenides, in demonstrating to Socrates how philosophy out be practised, seeks the assistance of the young Aristoteles to provide him with the right answers to the questions put to him, Parmenides.
I left Socrates at the end of part one feeling uncomfortable as a consequence of the adept criticism he had been subjected to by Parmenides; Parmenides then giving the young philosopher advice concerning his profession, suggesting he follow the practice of considering the consequences of any proposed hypothesis and also the consequences of the denial of the hypothesis; and Socrates then asking for an example, and after some urging Parmenides agrees to illustrate the method he is endorsing by considering the hypothesis that one is (that Being is one) and then that one is not (that Being is not one).
To follow the logical analysis that is presented by Parmenides, who took himself to be by some means getting at the nature of reality, it is necessary to understand what might be meant by the claim that ‘All is one’; a claim that is sometimes put by the alternative expressions, ‘One is’ and ‘Being is one’. To say that All is one may be to say that whatever is must be one with whatever is, at least in respect of being. My laptop and my bed where I am now sprawling because like Marcel Proust, (1871–1922), it is where I do my best thinking, they are one in that they both are, they both exist. Were we to try to think of something that does not exist, then it is either something that is not part of the one that is, for example, a goblin, or else, if it is something like empty space, then it is empty space; it has being, and is one with anything else that has being. And if we then decline to converse about anything at all except in terms of its being or not being, it is of course very much apparent that everything that is is one with everything else that is … except that, language being so treacherous, we should not say ‘else’, or even ‘everything’ for that matter, since to do so involves making a distinction in terms of something other than being.
Maybe we should just content ourselves with murmuring Aum …. a mantra of Hinduism signifying the essence of the ultimate reality ……
Once the game has begun, it is quite simple then to capitalise upon the multiplicity of uses of the word ‘is’ and of the word ‘one’ to defend the claim that ‘One is’, or that ‘Being is one, not many’. Parmenides, a master at this game, and thus his fame persists unto this day, was persuasive enough to impress both Socrates and Plato, perhaps because they themselves at times played similar games under what might be thought of as the same misconception, that they were learning about reality metaphysically.
To demonstrate to Socrates how philosophy ought to be practised Parmenides enlists the assistance of young Aristoteles to give him the right answers to the questions put to Parmenides. Considering first the alternative that one is, he swiftly establishes that if one is, it cannot be many; if it cannot be many, it can neither be a whole nor have parts, since in either case it would be many. Since only something other than the one could limit the one, if the one is, it has no beginning, middle, end; hence, it is unlimited, formless, existing nowhere, neither resting nor moving, and never in anything. The one could not be the same as or different from itself or anything other than itself; it could neither be equal to nor unequal to itself, nor to anything other; it could be neither the same age as, nor younger than, nor older than itself nor anything other. Finally, Parmenides concludes that no mode of being could be attributed to the one; consequently, the one is not. The assumption that the one is has yielded the conclusion that the one is not.
Parmenides then investigates the proposition that the one is not, but only after having decided that the one is, it partakes of being; and if it partakes of being, it must have being in every part and be infinitely multiple, thus not one. And further considerations only enforce the conclusion that if the one partakes of any mode of being, it must be multiple and not one; but if the one is not, and if there is consideration of the hypothesis that the one is not, then the meaning of the expression ‘If one is not’ is known. Furthermore, there is not only knowledge of the one which is not, but the one which is not must be something if it can be considered; but, on the other hand, being cannot be attributed to the one, since it is not. As that which is not, the one must be different from the others which are; and it must be like itself, which is not. Working out the implications of various interpretations of the ambiguous claim that the one is not, Parmenides finally comes to the conclusion that if the one is not, nothing is, and he finishes by stating:
‘Let this much be said; and further let us affirm what seems to be the truth, that, whether one is or is not. One and the others in relation to themselves and one another, all of them, in every way, are and are not, and appear to be and appear not to be’.
It is worth one’s while to attend to the logical play (undertaken in deadly earnest one supposes) in the latter part of the ‘Parmenides’, if only to learn what can happen when a philosopher mistakes logical facts for facts about the world; and the uselessness of the analysis makes the earlier discussion, (see part one), concerning the Platonic Ideas, seem all the more important by contrast. One receives the impression that both Plato and Socrates enjoyed the game that logic makes possible, but at the same time they tended to regard sophistical skills as unimportant, even improper, when contrasted with the practise of true philosophy.
As a final example of the sort of word play that occupied Parmenides and led to his famous thesis that ‘All is one’, I quote the following passage, elementary in its logical development, but sufficiently scintillating to impress his uncritical listeners, the youthful Socrates, and the guileless Aristoteles:
‘… the one which is not, if it is to maintain itself, must have the being of not-being as the bond of not-being, just as being must have as a bond the not-being of not-being in order to perfect its own being; for the truest assertion of the being of being and of the not-being of not-being is when being partakes of the being of being and not of the being of not-being — that is, the perfection of being; and when not-being does not partake of the not-being of not-being but of the being of not being — that is the perfection of not-being’.
‘Most true’, commented the green and artless Aristoteles. That is how the ‘Parmenides’ dialogue ends, with Aristoteles saying ‘most true’ to whatever it was that Parmenides just said… which does make me wonder whether or not Plato is being entirely serious here. Anyway, let us take it at face value for now, as in the next part I will discuss George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s, (1770–1831), response to Parmenides, for it brings to light a way of thinking to which we are all too prone and which has proven to be a great impediment to the understanding of philosophy, in particular to the understanding of the philosophy of Hegel.
To be continued ……
The Terms In Which I Think Of Reality
by Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997)
Reality is a question
of realizing how real
the world is already.
Time is Eternity,
ultimate and immovable;
everyone’s an angel.
It’s Heaven’s mystery
of changing perfection:
changes! Cars are always
going down the street,
lamps go off and on.
It’s a great flat plain;
we can see everything
on top of a table.
Clams open on the table,
lambs are eaten by worms
on the plain. The motion
of change is beautiful,
as well as form called
in and out of being.
Next : to distinguish process
in its particularity with
an eye to the initiation
of gratifying new changes
desired in the real world.
Here we’re overwhelmed
with such unpleasant detail
we dream again of Heaven.
For the world is a mountain
of shit : if it’s going to
be moved at all, it’s got
to be taken by handfuls.
Man lives like the unhappy
whore on River Street who
in her Eternity gets only
a couple of bucks and a lot
of snide remarks in return
for seeking physical love
the best way she knows how,
never really heard of a glad
job or joyous marriage or
a difference in the heart:
or thinks it isn’t for her,
which is her worst misery.
Notes to ‘Finnegans Wake’ quotation:
1. classically = in a classical manner; in classical style or after classical models.
2. naught = in no degree, not at all; and not.
3. lighting = kindling, ignition; and shaft, a beam or ray (of light, etc.), a streak of lightning, etc. Chiefly poetical; Leidenschaft (German), passion.
4. lovalit = lovely.
5. smugpipe = smoke, used for, or promoting, the escape of smoke, as smokepipe; smuk pige (Danish), beautiful girl.
6. Mistress Mereshame = Mrs Mereschame (Venus); and meerschaum pipe, a tobacco-pipe with a bowl made of meerschaum (a clay-like mineral, hydrous magnesium silicate); and from German Meerschaum, sea-foam.
7. cupric = related to copper; Aphrodite (Venus), the Greek goddess of love, was born near Cyprus (so called from Greek kypros, copper) and was therefore often depicted with amber-copper hair.
8. tresses = tress, a plait or braid of the hair of the head, usually of a woman.
9. foamwhite = white as foam; Aphrodite (Venus), the Greek goddess of love, was born from the white sea-foam (Greek Aphrodite, foam-born).
10. foaminine = feminine, she that is, or they that are feminine; and woman; and Aphrodite/Venus, goddess of beauty and sexual love.
11. ampersandalled = ampersand, a punctuation mark ‘&’ used to represent conjunction (and); and amber, of the colour and clearness of amber, of a clear yellowish brown.
12. aas = ace (obsolete.); and Aas (German), carrion; and house doctor.
13. Talop = Plato (b. 427 B.C.), Greek philosopher; and talos (Greek), the sun; and Talos (Greek), mythological guardian of Crete; made of bronze by Hephaestus; kept strangers off by throwing stones, or burned them, or heated himself redhot and clasped them in his arms; killed by Medea; and Talop (Volapük), Australia. Volapük was a constructed language, like Esperanto, much derided; as the limerick has it:
A charming young student of Grük
Once tried to acquire Volapük
But it sounded so bad
That her friends called her mad,
And she quit it in less than a wük.
14. onamuttony legture = anatomy lecture; and Rembrandt, ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Tulp’ (painting).